Regenerating Biodiversity Is Hard Work In The Best Of Circumstances


Jon Asgeir Jonsson, who works for a private forestry association, with larch saplings in western Iceland.

It’s never easy being green, but especially millennia after deforestation. Thanks to Henry Fountain and the New York Times:

Vikings Razed the Forests. Can Iceland Regrow Them?

GUNNARSHOLT, Iceland — With his flats of saplings and a red planting tool, Jon Asgeir Jonsson is a foot soldier in the fight to reforest Iceland, working to bring new life to largely barren landscapes.

The country lost most of its trees more than a thousand years ago, when Viking settlers took their axes to the forests that covered one-quarter of the countryside. Now Icelanders would like to get some of those forests back, to improve and stabilize the country’s harsh soils, help agriculture and fight climate change. Continue reading

James Prosek, Come to Chan Chich Lodge!


A Sami reindeer herders’ hut on Lake Virihaure in Padjelanta National Park. Credit Paintings by James Prosek, courtesy of the artist and Schwartz-Wajahat, New York

We had a tradition from the moment we arrived in Kerala, inviting some of our favorite people to come see what we were doing there. This one’s work at Cornell was a lovely coincidence because of Seth’s work at the Lab of Ornithology. But mainly, a conservation-oriented naturalist illustrator seemed a perfect fit for what we do. So, seeing what he has contributed to the Travel section of the New York Times today I realize we are due to extend another invitation, this time for him to join us at Chan Chich Lodge in Belize:

A Botanist in Swedish Lapland


The plan was to retrace part of a journey that Carl Linnaeus made in 1732 when he was 25, from Uppsala, just north of Stockholm, to the northernmost region of Sweden, known as Swedish Lapland. Linnaeus kept a detailed journal of his travels, often called his “Lapland Journal,” with maps of the mountains, rivers and lakes, drawings and his squiggly handwriting. Continue reading

Foraging Classes

HornFarmCenterLogoStacked-72-540x540WhiteBGA mushroom dropped in on my life, in an unexpected manner, and now I find myself wandering to unexpected places, such as rural Pennsylvania. I am sharing here mainly as a record of how I have come across the resources that inform how we approach bringing foraging to Chan Chich Lodge.

So, bravo and thanks to our friends at the Horn Farm Center for Agricultural Education, which is my latest find in these wanderings. I particularly like their clearly laid out information on the educational resources they offer, most notably this section on foraging classes: Continue reading

Plant, Coffee Table Baiting

9780714871486-940-ahsPhotos by Penn, Steichen and other classic masters share the pages with some of today’s greatest photographers in this book. It brings our attention to flora in both natural and still-life settings, making this kind of debate irrelevant.

Floral arranging, an art form, can be seen as baiting, in a way. We are mindful of the fact that most of the world increasingly lives in urban settings. While our job is to provide access to the wonders of wild nature, there is a vital role for plants in the daily lives of urbanites to remind them to get back to nature from time to time. If this book provides coffee tables daily reminders of that imperative, we are all for baiting.


Single Oriental Poppy (C), 1968 by Irving Penn. From Plant: Exploring the Botanical World

Plant wins American Horticultural Society Book Award!

Plant is ‘an art exhibit in book form’ says one of the judges – and who are we to disagree? Continue reading

Tagimoucia, A Glimpse Of Heaven


Tagimoucia has attained a kind of celebrity status because of its beauty and rarity. Credit Lam Yik Fei for The New York Times

For Fijians, this flower is viewed rarely enough to enhance its sacred status; for the rest of us, a photograph like the one above is like a siren call to come, behold it:

A Rare Pacific Islander Captivates Its Neighborhood

TAVEUNI ISLAND, Fiji — In Fiji, flowers can take on a spiritual, magical significance. They are strung together as garlands for ceremonies and festivals or worn as an ornament behind the ear on any given day.

The South Pacific archipelago is home to about 800 species of plants found nowhere else in the world. But the most special is the tagimoucia, a crimson and white flower that hangs down in clusters like a chain of ruby raindrops. Because of its beauty and rarity, it has attained a kind of celebrity status. Continue reading

Our Attention to Plants (or Lack Thereof)


Compared to “juicy” pop culture news, nature-lovers and conservationists constantly have to fight for people’s attention on subjects like endangered animals or protected wildlife. However, the struggle for plant devotees to garner people’s interest on green eukaryotes is much more difficult, except maybe for some garden-popular flowers and vegetables, and perhaps a few trees, but otherwise plants go unnoticed.

Conservation efforts are devoted overwhelmingly to animals; compared to the hundreds of plant species easily found but mostly overlooked in our environs. There’s even a formal name for this: plant blindness. And in a study published in the journal Conservation Biology, biologists Kathryn Williams and Mung Balding of Australia’s University of Melbourne ask whether it’s inevitable: Are people hard-wired by evolution to ignore the vegetal world? Can something be done about it?

“We are absolutely dependent on plants for life and health, but so often they fade into the background and miss out in the direct actions we take to protect our planet,” says Williams. “I wonder how the world would look if more people, instead of seeing a wall of green, saw individual plants as potential medicine, a source of food, or a loved part of their community.”

Continue reading

Addressing and Absorbing Oil Spills


Water lettuce and aquatic fern are misnomers for the type of task these plants might be used for in the near future. German researchers recently discovered that Salvinia molesta, an aquatic fern, and Pistia stratiotes, a type of water lettuce, have a specialized leaf anatomy that not only repels water and traps air, but also traps a lot of oil. The leaves of these plants are covered with tiny, hairlike structures called trichomes that allow the plant to float on the water surface and when dried, absorb more oil than two commercial oil absorbents used for oil spill cleanup, Duerex Pure and Öl-Ex.

[The] existing methods of dealing with oil spills all have significant drawbacks. Chemical dispersants and burning can spread toxins around, while environmentally friendly materials like sawdust and wheat straw absorb water in addition to oil, making cleanup messy and inefficient.

Continue reading

The “Wildman” in You


Whether you live in an urban or rural setting, the abundance of edible plants that surround us typically remains unconsumed unless we are referring to the plants that are growing in our own gardens. “Wildman” Steve, NYC’s famed foraging expert, is an avid naturalist who learns about the properties of common plants growing in neighborhoods in order to identify their utility for human consumption, including their medicinal attributes in some cases. He shares his findings through various forums and even has a phone application to offer a practical and user-friendly tool for those who want to get “in the field” and learn.

All of his videos, like the one below, remind us of the plethora of flavorful plant species right in our own backyard or neighborhood park and the following one highlights the joy it can be to do it with someone you love.

Continue reading

Phenology Disrupted by Climate Change in the UK

The UK has a rich history of biological recording by scientists and ‘citizen scientists’ who document the first signs of spring. Photograph: Alamy/Guardian

We first heard of the word phenology on this site back in 2012, from writings on a citizen science workshop in the Galápagos. Since then, the term has been linked to citizen science in the context of forest life cycles in England, coffee farming in Costa Rica, and orchids in the United Kingdom. It’s a good thing that there’s a history of normal people collecting information on nature’s timelines in Britain, because that provides rich and deep data on changing phenology with a warming climate. Jessica Aldred reports for the Guardian on a new study published in Nature:

Climate change is disrupting the seasonal behaviour of Britain’s plants and animals, with rising temperatures having an impact on species at different levels of the food chain, new research shows.

The result could be widespread “desynchronisation” between species and their phenological events – seasonal biological cycles such as breeding and migration – that could affect the functioning of entire ecosystems, according to the large-scale study published this week in the journal Nature.

Continue reading

Desert Gold in Death Valley

The primary threads in the floral carpet are yellow — the most common flower is called Desert Gold, which looks like a yellow daisy. Credit National Park Service

The primary threads in the floral carpet are yellow — the most common flower is called Desert Gold, which looks like a yellow daisy. Credit National Park Service

One of the most evocatively named US National Parks, Death Valley is currently awash in color due to record-breaking autumn rains. The impact of water on one of the driest places on earth is stunning, with carpets of flowers blooming from the latent seeds that remain dormant for years in the dry, crusty soil.



Find more images in the NYTimes Science feature, and via the National Park Service.

Ticking Clocks Of Botanical Gardens


Image © KPG_Payless | Shutterstock

Thanks to Conservation for Roberta Kwok’s summary of scientific news we had not quite expected, nor wished for:

A relaxing stroll in a botanic garden sounds like a lovely way to spend an afternoon. These green oases can encourage people to appreciate nature and bring attention to conservation issues. But some botanic gardens might harbor an ecological threat: they could be prime sources for invasive species to spread into the wild. Continue reading

Orchid Expo: Alajuela

One of José Luis’s orchids at Xandari.

From Friday the 24rd of October to Sunday the 26th, Alajuela had their annual orchid exposition, which includes displays and awards as well as a few lectures on growing orchids and a section for sale or auction. As James and I have written before, Xandari has a wonderful collection of this family of flowers in addition to the general gardens thanks to the industrious efforts of our head gardener, José Luis Ballestero. He has a little greenhouse near Xandari’s restaurant with about a hundred plants that are often in varying stages of development, depending on how much time he has to prune them.

The three photos above are examples of some of the orchids on display in Xandari’s common area, like the reception, lobby, and restaurant room. At the expo this weekend, there were dozens of species and hundreds of individual plants, including hybrids, miniature flowers, and some fantastically strange Continue reading

Flowering Plants Of The Western Ghats


For flower lovers, ecologists, and concerned citizens everywhere, important news in today’s Hindu:

As a global biodiversity hotspot and a world heritage site, the Western Ghats is a magnet for conservationists, nature lovers, scientists and researchers hoping to delve into the secrets of its abundant flora and fauna. But despite decades of study by individuals and groups, an essential reference work cataloguing the rich biodiversity of the region has remained a dream.

In a bid to address this need, scientists at the Jawaharlal Nehru Tropical Botanic Garden and Research Institute (JNTBGRI) at Palode near here have come out with a comprehensive work on the flowering plants of the Western Ghats.

Published in two volumes, the 1,700-page book reveals the occurrence of a total of 7,402 species of flowering plants in the region, out of which 5,588 species are native or indigenous. Of the rest, 376 are exotics naturalised and 1,438 species are cultivated or planted as ornamentals. Continue reading

From the Flora-Files, Part 4

This little gem can be found along the path to the art studio.

And so the flora-files march on (see past posts, starting from the most recent here). Continuing these posts has become a way for me to reflect on the wonderful opportunities I had at Xandari and around Costa Rica to come into contact with a lot of fascinating and beautiful flora and fauna. As I peruse my photo catalogs and look for pictures to post, I feel like I’m back there, even briefly. Continue reading

Roots and Seeds at Xandari

Back in the beginning of July, James and I helped José Luis plant some Bourbon coffee seeds so that they would eventually become seedlings that could be put in bags to grow into saplings. Now, after months of watering and patience, many of the seedlings are finally beginning to emerge. As more and more of them germinate and create their shoots, we’ll be putting them into the bags with soil to wait another year before planting them in the ground at Xandari.

Plenty of other plants have been productive over the last couple months: Continue reading

From the Flora-Files, Part 1

Right of the reception

Although, as I detailed in my last post, my internship at Xandari is over, I still have a great backlog of images that I never had a chance to upload while there. (My computer broke.) I’d like to share the better of those photos with everyone here. I’ve named this post “flora-files” because I think the title sort of punny: “files” in the sense of records on Xandari’s flora; and “file” in the sense of the Greek φίλoς (philos), “love,” the same one that shows up in “Philadelphia” or “audiophile.” Look out for more from the flora-files… I’ll detail where I find these flowers around Xandari in the caption, so that if you’re lucky enough to be here while they’re in bloom, you can go seek them out.

Garden paths

Continue reading

River Blossoms

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India’s famous flower markets are testiment to the people and culture’s strong identification with flowers in all aspects of their daily lives, both sacred and secular. Flowers are found in food and drinks, and as part of all the rights of passage of daily life, from birth to death and everything in between.

Although I’ve never been to Calcutta, I’ve read about the flamboyantly colorful Mallick Ghat Flower Market along the banks of the Hooghly River. Danish photographer Ken Hermann captures the proud men who make their living as Calcutta’s flower sellers.

‘I first went to the flower market during a visit to Calcutta three or four years ago and have wanted to do something on it ever since,’ explains Copenhagen-based Hermann.

‘It’s a beautiful and, at the same time, very stressful place but I was fascinated with it – and the flower sellers in particular. I really like the way they carry their flowers,’ he continues.

‘Sometimes it almost looks like they are wearing big flower dresses. I like that you see these strong and masculine men handling the flowers with so much care as if they were precious jewels.’

Hermann, whose work usually takes him into the grimier side of Indian life, was also enchanted by the flowers themselves, even if there were a few that he wasn’t allowed to photograph.

‘There are a lot of superstitions and religious belief in flowers in India,’ he explains. ‘I wasn’t allowed to photograph some of them because they were considered to be holy flowers and they would lose their power if I had.’ Continue reading

Notes from the Garden: The Gift of Cardamom


Today’s task in the garden was to harvest the ever-abundant cardamom in Cardamom County.

This is a task that cannot be completed by machines, so even in commercial fields, it must be handpicked. That is because figuring out which ones are ripe requires tuned fingers.

It was a bit of a learning curve for me at first because I thought I was supposed to be looking for which ones were the darkest, but then I learned otherwise.

I was looking for the ones that fell off easily into my hand from tugging slightly. When ripe, the small seed pods on the inside are dark colored.


We may be most familiar with this sweet spice in masala chai tea, but it has many uses.

To do a little research, I asked the Ayurvedic doctor here if he could enlighten me on some of the traditional medicine uses of cardamom. He said that it is good for throat and lung troubles, skin problems such as acne, and digestive issues.

The type of cardamom we have here is the Malabar variety and it is native to Kerala. The green leaves are pretty tall- probably about 5 feet on average. The pods are on short vines that cluster at the bottom of the tall leaves.

When we were harvesting them, it started  Continue reading